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What was the sin of Babel, if any? In ‘Vertical or Horizontal: The sin of Babel’, P.J. Harland seeks to demonstrate that the Babel’s sin was horizontal, an act of disobedience to the divine command to ‘fill and subdue the earth’. This is based on a canonical reading of Genesis, as opposed to reading the Babel narrative in isolation. Here I review Harland’s article and show that whilst compelling, his argument still does not preclude other interpretations, and offer an interpretation of my own that takes into account a source critical approach as well as a canonical approach.
Summary of the Article
In this article, P.J. Harland seeks to discuss and ultimately answer the question – “What was the sin of Babel, if any?”. This is achieved by demonstrating that the ‘complete text is more than the sum of its parts’, and when read with the surrounding material, rather than in isolation from, the meaning is significantly altered. Harland does this by examining the arguments for and against two main methodologies.
First, the ‘source critical approach’, where the account in Genesis 11:1-9 is read as passage that has undergone a number of edits (ranging from two to four), but is ultimately read on it’s own, as an awkward insertion during the compilation process of the primeval history. This has the net effect of making Genesis 11:1-9 a ‘textual island’ – read in isolation from the surrounding passages, and thus the resultant sin is a vertical sin – hubris.
The second approach seeks to read the story of Genesis 11:1-9 in situ, and thus also understand what meaning is derived from its location in Scripture. To Harland, under this methodology, the implied sin is horizontal – direct disobedience to the Genesis 1:28 (&9:1) command to “Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it”. Harland argues that under this interpretation, the people of Genesis 11:1-9 “have a fortress mentality which seeks to survive by its own resources, not on the will and purpose of God”.
Harland thus seeks to unpack and critique both understandings, based on their methodology.
The source critical approach:
When investigating the Source Critical methodology, Harland makes two central points. Firstly, he is not convinced by recent and also older arguments that Genesis 11:1-9 is a compilation or a weaving of two stories. Although scholars such as Uehlinger have argued that 11:1-9 is actually a story that has moved through multiple edits, Harland (and other scholars) point out that although coherent, this minute dissection presses on the limits of credibility, and also reduces the original ‘layer’ to such a bare structure that it hardly resembles a story! Furthermore, Harland and Wenham both argue that the story demonstrates a chiasmatic structure, and thus is unlikely to have been a story edited four times, as the chiasmatic structure would require a single author. In fact Wenham in the opening lines of his commentary on chapter 11:1-9 states: “The tower of Babel is a short but brilliant example of Hebrew story telling. The compositional techniques…word play, chiasmus, paronomasia, and alliteration are just some of the devices used to unify and accentuate the message of the tale”. Thus it seems clear in Wenham’s mind that a single author devised and wrote this passage.
Thus Harland concludes that the text need not be split or separated, but can legitimately be read as unity.
Whilst many of Harland’s critiques of this theory are compelling, not all stand up for themselves. For example, whilst it is hard to split v3 into two separate stand alone stories, this does not rule out the possibility of a later source adding more information, or of an editor ‘splicing’ two traditions together to generate a syncretic whole. Furthermore, the change in point of view that is evident in v3 and v4 seems to lend further support to this idea. In my opinion, theories like Uehlinger’s four layers still seem compelling, and fit with this model, however Wenham’s argument regarding the chiasmatic intent and literary ingenuity are not easily resolved if this is a spliced story.
Secondly, Harland points out that the greater issue here is that of the interactions of Gen 11:1-9 with the surrounding material. Many scholars (such as von Rad) have argued that Gen 11:1-9 is ‘irreconcilable’ with Gen 10 especially, and have also demonstrated that Gen 11:1-9 does not ‘fit’ well with other parts of J. This has previously lent support to the idea that this passage is a textual island, and although Harland goes on to challenge this notion, he does recognise the rationale for this position.
Thus it is likely in Harland’s mind that more than one source was involved in compiling the primeval history, although some times not in a seamless manner. Harland concludes, and I would concur, that “the combining of the traditions does not appear to have been fully integrated”, but that this passage is intended to be read in a wider context.
The Yahwist’s portrayal of the sin of Babel
Given that it is largely accepted that Gen 11:1-9 originated from the J tradition, Harland then seeks to unpack and investigate the story of Babel from the Yahwist’s perspective, in isolation, as has been the norm. In this, Harland examines the evidence that links Gen 11:1-9 to Babylon, and the Ziggurat structures that were common place. Under this interpretation, the sin being committed was one of hubris, rebellion, or some form of idolatry. Other interpretations have also focused on the vertical aspect, arguing that the sin was similar to that of Gen 3:5 and 6:1-4, where humanity desires improper intercourse with the divine. Once again, Harland is not convinced by arguments that create this link, instead arguing that although plausible, too much is being read into the text here.15 Harland notes that “no mention is made by the people that they intended any proper worship or idolatry”, and later goes on to demonstrate that the word used for tower, mgdl, is used in other places in the Old Testament to refer to a citadel or a tower in the city wall, rather than a Ziggurat, Pyramid, or Cultic symbol. Wenham, in his commentary on this passage, points to a similar notion, and argues that although this passage may contain motifs that bear some similarity to babylonian stories such as that of Etemenanki, they should not be interpreted as direct references, but just influencing motifs. Furthermore, scholars (including Harland) argue that the story of Babel is intended as a global story, not limited to a certain race or civilisation.
While Harland’s warning about eisegetic tendencies occurring must be heeded, it is similarly unwise to also overlook the many links and parallels between this text and the Babylonian texts (such as Enuma Elish), which speaks of brickwork, and a tower with its head in the sky. Wenham’s interpretation of influencing motifs seems more reasonable, however this must be tempered with an understanding that this raises a multiplicity of dating conundrums, and any theory must be able to account for these.
Thus the sin of Babel, like Eden, under this methodology, is one of hubris and rebellion. When read as a textual island, the sin being committed seems vertical. However Harland remains unconvinced by this interpretation, and therefore goes on to offer an alternative, where he shows parallels (or echoes) from an earlier Genesis text – the Garden of Eden. These echoes are an important motif, and are emphasised, rightly so, by many scholars. Harland argues that the repeated motif here is one of trying to break the divinely imposed limits on humanity, and ‘grasping’ at being like God (cf. Gen 3:5, 3:22, also 6:4). This interpretation is not new, and can be found in ancient literature.
This methodology of isolation is unconvincing, not because the motifs mentioned are not real nor important, but I believe there is a wider series of motifs to pull into this text that are lost when Gen 11:1-9 is examined as a self-contained unit, and therefore the interpretation that the tower is a Ziggurat and is representative of hubris and rebellion, seems narrow. However, this does not rule out Walton’s interpretation of idolatry.
Ultimately, with Harland, I am not compelled by this method as I believe that more is to be gained from a canonical reading, as the next section goes on to demonstrate.
Reading J & P together:
Here Harland makes his case that the original meaning of Gen 11:1-9 is to demonstrate the disobedience to the divine command given in Gen 1:28 and in Gen 9:1 – “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it”. This is based on three main points.
Firstly, when read canonically, and in light of these divine commands, the tower of Babel appears to be a point of unification – “lest we be scattered across the face of the whole earth”. Harland argues that this phrase forms a direct link between Gen 11:1-9 and the earlier divine commands, as the motif of filling / scattering is employed in both. Harland posits that the tower and the city are built not as an act of pride, nor as an attempt to overstep creaturely limits, but as a way of staying in one place. Furthermore, and importantly, in this case we see the typical response of the culture where the punishment fits the crime. The fact that the punishment for their sin was a confusion of languages and a consequent scattering strengthens the argument that the sin committed was one of disobedience to a dispersal edict.
Secondly, there is a focus in this text on scattering, as has been highlighted by both Gunkel and Uehlinger’s layer’s theories. Harland points out that the word for scatter (pws) is used both positively and negatively in the Old Testament, but in all cases refers to God’s desire for the earth to be filled. In addition, Harland points to the use of the word pn here, which is used to demonstrate fear, indicating a lack of trust in God’s command to spread.
Thirdly, Harland builds his case on the use of the word mgdl in other Old Testament texts referring to a citadel or a fortress. Harland uses the example of Judges 9:50-7 where the people flee to the mgdl when the city is taken.
So was the sin of Babel a horizontal or a vertical sin? Ultimately, I think there is much to be gained from a canonical reading of scripture, and examining the chapters in relation to the surrounding material. When this approach is taken, we see a wider range of motifs being employed in this text, which ultimately become not “either/or”, as Harland has portrayed, but more of a “both/and”. For instance, whilst we do see motifs of scattering, we also see motifs of pride, rebellion, and humanity striving to overstep human limits, followed by a divinely enforced ‘return to their proper place’ (as we saw in Gen 3). However there are other motifs too, such as sin and grace, where humans sin and God responds with judgement but also grace. There are motifs of a God who continues to relate to and ‘walk in’ his creation, not remaining aloof but interacting with it at a personal level. And there is the obvious but ingenious motif of babbling, which as Wenham points out is woven throughout the entire passage, and reaches its climax in v9.
In addition, there is also much to be gained from the source critical approach, and we would be foolish to disregard these theories. There is certainly compelling evidence regarding semantic fields, point of view, layers, doublets, and the lack of neat integration with the surrounding texts, that indicates that perhaps more than one tradition or source was involved in the forming of this story. However, Harland’s assertion that a source critical approach will result in a ‘vertical sin’ interpretation, is a non sequitur argument. What will result in a vertical sin interpretation is reading the text as an island, isolated from the surrounding scripture, and independent of its canonical context, but this is not implicit to the source critical method. But it must also be stressed that Harland’s counter argument is also not convincing. Although the evidence for Harland’s interpretation is coherent and cogent, it fails to preclude all other interpretations, thus making Harland’s claims that “the meaning is significantly altered” when read in a wider context, unconvincing. At best, the meaning is nuanced, or broadened, but ultimately not dramatically changed. Thus in my reading of Gen 11:1-9, the sin of the people was both horizontal and vertical. As with the rest of Genesis 1-11, mankind is seen to be intent on rebellion. Rebellion against the divinely instigated creaturely limits, and also rebellion against the divine command to ‘fill and subdue the earth’. Thus in this rebellion they plotted to ‘create a name for themselves’, by building a city and a tower that would not only protect them, but also enable them to ‘become like God.’
So was Babel’s sin one of hubris, rebellion, or disobedience? In my interpretation, all three.
Childs, B. Introduction to the Old Testament As Scripture. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1979.
Harland, P.J. ‘Vertical or Horizontal: The Sin of Babel’, Vetus Testamentum 48, (1998), 515-533.
Walton, J.H. Genesis, The NIV Application Commentary, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001.
Wenham, G. Genesis 1-15. Word Biblical Commentary, 1. Waco: Word Books, 1987.